What America's Oldest Restaurant Can Teach Us About Creating Repeat Customers

www.restaurantmagazine.com

By Rich Parubrub
Group Creative Director

Most people know Newport, RI for its yacht-filled harbor, Gilded Age mansions and world-renowned jazz festival. But the seaside town also lays claim to the White Horse Tavern, the oldest restaurant in the country.

Founded in 1673, the restaurant has a rich history that includes billing as the “Birthplace of the Businessman’s Lunch,” as public officials in the then British colony charged their meals to the city’s treasury.

In the colonial days, not everyone could read, so symbols were important. A white horse signified a tavern – a place where the hungry and the thirsty could come for food and drink. (Which goes to show that long before best practices for modern branding were created, the original owners laid the foundation for a strong brand with an easily identifiable, bold logo.)

What makes the White Horse Tavern of interest to other restaurants is the fact that they have managed to to keep customers coming back through the door. Getting repeat visits is an industry challenge today so the White Horse Tavern offers actionable insights worth sharing:

Consistent Quality/Local Ingredients

Whether we’re talking about a diner or high-end eatery, the ability to attract guests comes down to what ultimately ends up on the plate. So it pays to use the best quality ingredients. For generations, the team at White Horse Tavern has served fresh-off-the-boat fish, clams and lobsters from Narragansett Bay with hand-picked produce from area farms. They also serve the very best artisan cheeses, honeys and prime cuts of beef.

Staying True to Your Roots

In a time where gimmicks and new-fangled technologies are used to lure in guests, it’s refreshing to see a restaurant stick to what it does best. The White Horse Tavern is – and will always be – a colonial tavern. You can bet your Saturday night reservation for four that it will not host a karaoke theme night with Asian finger foods.

A Signature Item

Providing a particular item that you’re known for gives regulars a favorite thing to order and new customers a reason to visit. That item, in effect, becomes an ad for your restaurant, as word passes from guest to guest to guest as being the “must try” on your menu. The Dark ‘N’ Stormy is the White Horse Tavern’s signature drink – a popular highball cocktail made with dark rum and ginger beer, served over ice and garnished with a slice of lime.

Active Social Media Presence

Being online allows you to engage with your customers, keeping them in the know of menu changes, special offers or events, media coverage and the occasional closing due to bad weather. You can also share appetizing food pics, thank a guest for a glowing review or address a negative one. Though the White Horse Tavern does have a presence on Twitter, YouTube, Yelp and TripAdvisor, the bulk of the restaurant’s customer interaction is on Facebook.

(Re)Investment

Putting money into improvements that will make the customer experience better is another way to help create repeat customers. Examples include adding a bar, renovating the dining room or replacing outdated kitchen equipment. To that end, the White Horse Tavern recently upgraded their parking lot.

Over the years, the tavern has successfully found a way to remain a destination in Newport. Employ some of these lessons and guests might continue to frequent your restaurant as well.

Li Brown